(2 of 5) Why take on a tough challenge?

This is second part of a series of blogs showing how we can achieve more by rethinking our attitude towards failure. In this blog post I’m looking at why you might want to take on a tough challenge.

Tough doesn’t mean big. Your challenge can be pushing ahead with the orphanage in Cambodia or getting the bathroom redone. It can be choosing a new, more satisfying, career or it could be doing the GST return. What ‘tough’ challenges have in common is that you’re procrastinating on starting them. You want the outcome, but you’re blinking  because it involves certain hard work for uncertain reward and possible risk.

You might be thinking that this point is blooming obvious. I thought so too. Then I was giving one of my workshops about how to take on tough challenges, to a group of admin staff.  So we could get into the fun stuff I asked the participants to come up with their own tough challenge. It’s a slightly awkward question, but most of the group started scribbling away in the workbooks. However, there was also a certain number of thin-lipped cold stares coming from people sitting mostly at the back. These people were very happy with just the way things are thank you very much.

This post is for them.

One of the first things I did, after thinking I might take part in the trans-Atlantic rowing race, was to go and see a sports coach, Jon Ackland.

I walked into his office and he had a huge white sheet of paper in front of him, with lots of little squares on it. It was my training plan, and he was busy filling all the boxes with how many hours of what I should be doing each day to get fit for the race.

He looked up from his desk and said, ‘Oh Kevin, I just need to know for your training plan, are you going to win the race or just take part?’

Given that I had only just decided I was going to be in the race this question seemed a little premature.

So I said ‘I’m going to try really hard and see what happens then.’  Which seemed a perfectly reasonable answer. But then he turned on me and said ‘No! No! No! That’s completely wrong! The only way you’ll have a CHANCE of winning this race is if you DECIDE to win. Then everything about the way you prepare for this race will change!’ He went on, ‘I don’t care what it is but I need to know now! Are you going to win? Or just take part?’

So he’s asking me to raise the stakes. He’s asking me to take on a HARDER challenge with a bright line between success and failure. And in fact has a very good chance of failure.

Hang on a second, why on Earth should I commit to a goal that I’ll probably fail at?

Risking failure sucks – but stagnation is worse

We consider taking on tough challenges because we want things to be better. We want a situation to be different. So how does that happen? Well, we could do nothing or we could do something.

For most people in most situations doing nothing is unlikely to be successful. That job isn’t going to find itself, and the garage isn’t going to go fill itself with Lamborghini. Even if you’re doing absolutely nothing, your life is certainly heading somewhere and when you’re in a moving car it’s generally better to have both hands on the steering wheel.

The problem is your brain is a reward-seeking missile. Left to ourselves our natural state is to focus on pleasure, on the next bright and shiny thing, or what need to do right now to make sure that things don’t get a lot worse.

Unfortunately doing just what you want to do each day doesn’t result in a better life. (Just in higher video game scores and more weight). Improving our situation lies on the other side of sustained hard work and sacrifice.

So that’s the first reason why we take on tough challenges – to avoid stagnation and improve our situation.

Tough challenges are the doorway to some top shelf emotions

A Harvard professor, Teresa Amabile, recently had thousands of workers record what happened at work each day and also how motivated they felt. The days when motivation was at its highest were the days when progress was made towards a goal. The best part of your day is when you’ve achieved something. Accomplishment is the sweetest of emotions.

How do we get that sense of achievement? By taking on tough challenges. To prove me wrong you have to name me a worthwhile and easy challenge. To be rewarding, at some point, the challenge has to be beyond our reach.

Recently I was thinking about taking part in the Tarawera Ultra. A 100k running race through the forests between Rotorua and Kawerau. It would be an immense challenge for me. I had run a marathon a few years earlier, but this would be nearly two and half times as long. And it was only two months out so very little time to train. The most likely outcome is that I would nose into the mud at about the 45km mark. But wouldn’t it be an amazing achievement to get to the end? To run a 100km! Do I enter or not?

I didn’t know what I should do, but while I was going back and forwards on this I found myself looking at the FAQ page on the race website. It turns out that I wasn’t the only person who had this problem. In fact, the very first question was:

‘I don’t know if I can do this.’

In other words – why should I take on a challenge that I might fail at? Can you guess what their answer was? It wasn’t, ‘You can do it!’ – that wouldn’t have been true for everyone. It wasn’t, ‘You won’t know unless you try’. That’s true but doesn’t really address the question.

Their answer to the question was, ‘That’s the point.’

I liked that very much.

The reason that we take on these difficult challenges is to see what we are capable of. To have that exhilaration that comes from breaking our limits. If you knew you could run a 100km then what’s the point? It would be like … making a cup of tea. Nice, but not exactly thrilling.

Let’s flip it around. What if you were physically prevented from taking on challenges that were beyond you? What if you were only allowed to do things that you already knew how to do, or had already done before? Only take on challenges that were 100% guaranteed of getting the outcome. Does that sound like a life? Or like a prison?

There is a question that I’m afraid gets asked far too often by motivational speakers, which is, ‘What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?’. I think it’s supposed to encourage you to think beyond your limits. Unfortunately, this question, if unconstrained, quickly leads to some absurd answers. What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail? What would I do if I knew that I could only succeed? Jump off a tall building. Grab the guitar off The Edge at a U2 concert. Ask Beyoncé out on a date. That sort of thing. But inevitably I would die of boredom.

(BTW, a much better question is, ‘How much better would you feel about your challenge if you could figure out a way to control the risk?’ That’s what we’ll be looking at a later blog in this series.)

Tough challenges are a tool to get the most out of yourself

I’ll offer one last reason for why you want to take on tough challenges and it’s to do with the psychology of performance.

I’ve already introduced Jon Ackland, my coach for the trans-Atlantic race. Like all good coaches Jon was very dogmatic about winning. He would spend a lot of time impressing upon me the importance of winning. He would say things like, “You’ve got to win, it’s all about winning. Participation is for pussies. There’s no second place there’s only first loser!’ And so on.

That didn’t seem quite right to me. Sure winning is important but is it so black and white?

So I pushed back, ‘Hang on! It can’t be ALL be about winning. What if you were in a marathon race and you only won because your main opposition wasn’t there?
Or you lost because they cheated?
Or you were winning until you swerved to save a small child?
Winning can’t always be everything. Losing can’t always mean failing.’

But he wouldn’t have that. And so we went back and forth about this until finally he said something that stopped me in my tracks. In a moment of extraordinary insight he resolved the dilemma between winning vs participating.

He said, ‘Of course winning isn’t everything. The best that you can do is the best that you can do. But you can’t get the best out of yourself unless you commit to a difficult goal.’

That’s it! To get the best out of yourself you need to commit to a tough challenge, to tell yourself that achieving it is … well if not everything then very important. But to stay sane part of you has to remember that, at the end of the day, the best you can do is the best you can do.

Make sense?

So, three reasons that you might want to take on a tough challenge:

– To grow your skills and capabilities;
– To find out what you’re capable of; and
– To get the best out of yourself.

(Hmmm, just re-reading that I haven’t been quite consistent, that last point only works if you’re taking on a big goal. Getting yourself over the line just to make your bed isn’t really getting the best out of yourself.)

We might know that taking on tough challenges are good for us – but just knowing usually isn’t enough to get us to take action. We tend not to think about the benefits, we focus on the risks and the pain, especially the pain of failure. If we can remove that, we might just be able to make some progress. And that’s what we’re going to be looking at in the next post.


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Kevin Biggar

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